- Ross Ballot
Subaru WRX: A Greatest Hit that's missing Fun?
Contrary to common internet belief, driving a Subaru WRX in the snow is not the revelatory thrill ride that everyone hypes it up to be. I’ll even go so far as to say it’s boring. Yes, you heard me right. Subaru’s WRX, a perennial suggestion on the list of practical year-round enthusiast cars, is boring to drive in the snow, and it’s even mostly just boring as a platform. Period.
After a past consisting entirely of rear-wheel-drive and RWD-biased cars and trucks, I’m now deep into winter number two with my own Subaru WRX. And just as they did around this time last year, two things resonate: thanks to its all-wheel-drive, the WRX is remarkably capable...and, consequently, remarkably unexciting. It’s an absolute riot in small bursts like autocross or attacking a mountain road, but overall, and similar to Todd’s discussion of his current Mini’s front-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive (AWD) is simply lacking as a platform when it comes to driving enjoyment and adrenaline-boosting excitement.
For one-and-a-half decades the Subaru WRX has been an obvious affordable sports-sedan option for regions where weather regularly affects one’s life and travel. The model’s sporty character draped over a livable foundation enticed me enough to buy one straight off a dealer lot. And now, after just over one-and-a-half years and forty-two-thousand miles daily driving a 2017 Subaru WRX through every condition reasonable, I’ve accumulated enough time with my current daily to draw conclusions I expect will be controversial.
Underneath the scoop and flares the WRX is a completely normal automobile, albeit one purposefully infused with healthy amounts of speed and street cred, all readily usable by WRC-wannabes and commuters alike. This explains its broad appeal, as the WRX makes sense for those who don’t need or want their car to be anything more than a typical sedan with a dash of aggression and that famous any-weather prowess. As a sporty offering it’s a totally approachable and easy-access way into the world of automotive enthusiasm, capable of tackling the daily grind and serving as a mountain road attack weapon. And for that one-size-fits-all purpose, it’s perfect. The AWD system builds an overpowering sense of security, an omnipresent helping hand consistently keeping drivers out of trouble and making them look like heroes at all speeds and on all surfaces. The WRX is created to “do it all” rather than to excel in one, or a few, specific disciplines.
I’ll get right to it: the Subaru WRX’s fun factor is overhyped online and underwhelming in practice. In the winter and even in general, the car’s capabilities correspond directly to its faults as a true enthusiast offering. The WRX is a car of contradictory assets: On one hand, it comes off as “exciting” because it never stops being “on,” always ready to play like the puppy who thinks anything and everything is a game even if what’s happening around it is very serious. But on the other, aside from when it’s being hooned like the rally car it so dearly wishes to be, the WRX is rarely rewarding in daily life. Instead, the fun fades away when the car isn’t being given a proper thrashing, revealing a rough-riding economy car with neither the drama nor the excitement of something focused on driving enjoyment.
While the definition is wholly subjective, for me the fun factor is primarily composed of the car’s ability to make its occupants smile and laugh, it’s playfulness, and it’s regular reminders that the car serves as more than a basic runabout appliance. To me, outright velocity and the corresponding number on the speedometer pale in comparison to a talkative chassis able to repeatedly toe the line of traction. Sliding the rear end has me laughing and smiling most and the Subaru simply doesn’t-- and cannot-- oblige because its AWD mantra about always maintaining full traction means it’s always desperate to be in near-perfect control. The WRX is stable and quick, but fun is about controlling the car, not the car controlling you. And here, the WRX comes up short.
An example to epitomize this: my long-departed RWD Challenger R/T was more playful and generated more laughs at walking speed in the snow than my WRX at any speed, in any condition. Not that the big Dodge is dynamically better than the WRX, because it absolutely is not, but its drive layout allows for more fun and mandates more reliance on driver interaction. This is where RWD shines: with just a tap of the gas and flick of the wheel you are forced to focus, to control and to push the car to its and to your own limits. Whereas a dabble of opposite lock and some tail-out action is simple, approachable fun, the WRX is sidelined by its inability to be steered with the rear. Want to partake in a juvenile delight? Try doing donuts in a WRX. You’ll need a wide, expansive amount of snow-covered space to yourself, something rarely found in everyday life and which does not put you in touch with skills or a level of limits that can safely or regularly be explored on the streets. Driving through snow-storms used to be something that I daydreamed of; it was thrilling and exhilarating. It tested confidence and competence of man, machine, and the two working together. The WRX demands very little of its driver in regards to throttle and steering-angle management, which detracts from it being a serious enthusiast contender. And though this is not a fault of the WRX but rather a reality of the impressive AWD system focused on grip at all costs, it does serve as explicit proof that oversteer is always better-- or at least more fun-- than understeer.
There is an upside that comes from this though, and it cannot be ignored. Back road or freeway, regardless of what’s covering the surface, the WRX sticks with near physics-defying ferocity. It changes direction like there’s dry pavement beneath the tires, only falling short when New England’s weather does its best impression of Hoth. As much a testament to the competence of Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive as it is proper winter tires, in turn this unfortunately makes the WRX surprisingly unexciting. The driver is required to pay less attention as the WRX doesn't require frequent use of reactive steering and allows for lazy set-up of corners, it dictates fewer consequences from poor throttle inputs, and, as a whole, it means you have to drive less. Compliments to it as a four-season vehicle, yes, but also demerits against its ability to provide entertainment and excitement on a recurring basis.
To this, I conclude: in all but the most extreme conditions, the WRX is an overly docile platform to live with if you prioritize driving fun. Yes, the WRX is wildly capable and quick through even the worst Mother Nature can throw at it, but, crucially, it just doesn’t ask you to explore its limits. You, the driver, are always wondering where its breaking point lies instead of knowing you can playfully dance with that line and get satisfaction from doing so. AWD masks a driver’s flaws, makes performance driving less of a challenge, and in the process makes driving less interactive and demanding. The WRX’s fun factor is inherently compromised by the car’s computers and all four tires’ neverending desire to maintain grip. So while the WRX may be an Everyday Driver Greatest Hit, it’s deserving of such for its all-around ability to mesh with everchanging needs and conditions, not for its strength at producing smiles so big they hurt your face. Perhaps a selectable AWD system like that in the newest M5 is ideal, and maybe it’s the way forward for do-it-all solutions. All I know is that from the time I’ve spent with my WRX, it’s been easy for me to decide to go back to rear-wheel-drive with whatever replaces the Subie.
You might feel differently and that’s what makes cars great. But as a year-round, all-conditions WRX owner I say: If you’re after fun above almost all else, you don’t need and don’t want all-wheel-drive. It, and the WRX, are actually quite boring in the real world. Yes, you heard me right.